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Backup Utah QB ready for Y.

Ratliff to make first start on Saturday against Cougars

When a television reporter asked Quinton Ganther what he thought about the youngster replacing injured starter Brian Johnson, the senior tailback quickly brought the sportscaster up to speed.

"Well, he's really not a young quarterback," Ganther said. "He's three years older than Brian."

Brett Ratliff, a junior college transfer in his first season with the Utes, will make his first NCAA start Saturday at BYU. He'll step in for the 18-year-old Johnson, who learned through an MRI Monday that his left-knee injury is a torn ACL with a 6-8 month recovery period.

"Brett's a good quarterback. He's very accurate. He has a great arm and he makes good reads," said Johnson, who vows to help Ratliff in any way possible. "He has all my support. I'll be behind him 100 percent."

Unlike Johnson, who ranks third in the nation in total offense (337 ypg), Ratliff's numbers are almost nonexistent. In extremely limited action, he has completed just 1-of-4 passes for 21 yards.

At Butte Junior College (Calif.), however, Ratliff threw a school-record 41 touchdown passes while leading his squad to consecutive bowl appearances — earning MVP honors in one of them.

"He's a winner," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "He had a great track record in junior college."

Ratliff, he continued, has absorbed the offense and showed a lot of confidence and poise in taking over late in the New Mexico game.

The 6-foot-4, 195-pounder from Chico, Calif., completed his first pass — a 21-yard throw to Travis LaTendresse — before things eventually soured with an interception with just over one minute to play.

New Mexico then ran out the clock — leaving Utah one win shy of bowl eligibility entering the season finale in Provo.

"We've got to move forward. No one's going to feel sorry for us. We don't feel sorry for ourselves," Whittingham said. "Brett Ratliff, he's going to be our guy."

It's a role Ratliff is eager to fill.

"I'm a player. I come to play," he said. "I'm a gamer and I think of myself as a leader. I think I'll be able to lead the team to a great game and hopefully a victory."

Ratliff is confident he has prepared himself throughout the season.

Even so, the junior finds himself at the helm of a shorthanded offense. Like Johnson, wide receiver John Madsen also suffered a season-ending injury last Saturday.

"I've just got to come in prepared and ready to play. I've got to step up and take advantage of this opportunity that I've been given," Ratliff said. "It's so unfortunate that we lost Brian and John, but we've just got to make up for it with everyone else and come in ready to play and play to win."

As for being thrust into the spotlight, Ratliff knows he'll be starting in one of the nation's top rivalries and he's not intimidated about it.

CLOSED PRACTICES: For the first time this season, Utah's football practices will be closed to the media all week long.

"Our plan was to have practice open and have no problem with that," Whittingham said. "But with some of the things we may do differently now with the injury situation, we just felt it's in our best interest to just keep it closed."

MADSEN MENDING: Madsen, who suffered a season-ending injury early in Saturday's loss to New Mexico, had successful surgery Monday. Doctors repaired his dislocated ankle and broken fibula in what Whittingham called an extensive procedure.

LOOKING BACK: Despite rushing for 98 yards in the game, Ganther spent much of the fourth quarter Saturday as a pass blocker. With New Mexico blitzing with as many as eight defenders, Utah opted to abandon the run — even on a first-and-5 situation in the Utes' final series.

"I was surprised. I was expecting my number to be called," Ganther said. ". . . I became a great pass protector in that fourth quarter. I like it. Anything I can do to help keep them off the quarterback."

Even so, the starting tailback believes the Utes may have been able to run against the Lobos' blitz packages down the stretch.

"It's not impossible," Ganther said. "You've just got to make a few guys miss."

And when you do, he added, it's off to the races.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com